Six Sigma in education

Published date06 February 2017
Date06 February 2017
AuthorPaul G. LeMahieu,Lee E. Nordstrum,Elizabeth A. Cudney
Subject MatterEducation,Curriculum, instruction & assessment,Educational evaluation/assessment
Six Sigma in education
Paul G. LeMahieu
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford,
California, USA
Lee E. Nordstrum
RTI International, Edina, Minnesota, USA, and
Elizabeth A. Cudney
Missouri University of Science and Technology, Rolla, Missouri, USA
Purpose This paper is one of seven in this volume that aims to elaborate different approaches to quality
improvement in education. It delineates a methodology called Six Sigma.
Design/methodology/approach The paper presents the origins, theoretical foundations, core
principles and a case study demonstrating an application of Six Sigma in a school-community partnership in
Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Findings The core principles underlying the approach are decreasing variability or unreliability in
organizational work processes, eliminate waste or activity that does not add value to desired outcomes,
identify defects and decrease their incidence, reduce the cost of work processes, and improve beneciary/client
satisfaction levels. The steps in this statistics-dependent method are design, measure, analyze, improve and
Originality/value Few theoretical treatments and demonstration cases are currently available on
commonly used models of quality improvement that might have potential value in improving education
systems internationally. This paper lls this gap by elucidating one promising approach. The paper also
derives value as it permits a comparison of the Six Sigma approach with other quality improvement
approaches treated in this volume.
Keywords Six sigma, Quality improvement
Paper type Research paper
The name Six Sigma refers to the proportion of defects, or errors, in a process (Godfrey, 2002).
The goal of Six Sigma is to reduce variation. Variation in a process is quantied by the
standard deviation, a descriptive statistic represented by the Greek letter sigma (
). A
“sigma” level (the number of errors per million opportunities in Six Sigma) can be calculated
for all processes, and a Six Sigma process is one which runs perfectly 99.9997 per cent of the
time or with just over three errors in one million trials. As a quality improvement method, Six
Sigma focuses on customers or the intended beneciaries of services; continuous process
improvements; the understanding and reduction of undesirable variation; the collection of
data and the use of statistical methods for problem-solving in the service of improving
processes; and project management and team efforts, innovation and cost savings (Eckes,
While much of the language and terminology of Six Sigma is based on business and
manufacturing, many of the underlying concepts are germane to the eld of education. Yet,
the method is not often deployed in educational organizations. To the extent that Six Sigma
is deployed in education, it is often used for very specic improvement efforts or in
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Six Sigma in
QualityAssurance in Education
Vol.25 No. 1, 2017
©Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/QAE-12-2016-0082
conjunction with the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence to facilitate education
entities’ application of the framework to their organization[1].
Six Sigma has been utilized by a large number of companies, particularly within the
manufacturing and nancial sectors. The method was created at Motorola and is widely
associated with General Electric, but other companies have deployed it as well. Allied Signal,
Bank of America, Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, American Express, Sears, Home Depot,
Target, Sony, Starwood Hotels and Kaiser Permanente have all deployed the method to great
success (Antony and Banuelas, 2001).
The Six Sigma methodology relies heavily on the formal training of individuals who work
on Six Sigma projects. Their levels of methodological expertise are measured by a “belt”
system. Yellow Belts and Green Belts usually work under a more senior leader. Green Belts
may lead small projects that are typically directly related to their job function. Black Belts
and Master Black Belts lead Six Sigma projects. These individuals normally devote all of
their time over the course of three to six months to deploying the method, identifying
problems, designing solutions and implementing the solutions. Within manufacturing and
service industries, a framework of dedicated Six Sigma professionals is fairly standard and
is easily justied because of potential cost savings. Six Sigma has recently and slowly begun
to gain attention in academia; therefore, a standard framework for implementation does not
currently exist in education. This paper describes the Six Sigma methodology and provides
an example of an education organization. Milwaukee Succeeds used Six Sigma in a
community-wide effort to improve the educational experiences of all children and families in
Milwaukee Public Schools.
History of Six Sigma
Six Sigma as a method was introduced within the past 30 years. It quickly rose in prominence
in the manufacturing, nancial, retail, and service sectors. It was developed and rst
practiced by Motorola in 1986.
At the time, Motorola had approximately 85 per cent of the market share and the company
was seeing double-digit growth (Godfrey, 2002). Still, the CEO, Robert Galvin and others
recognized that the quality of Motorola products and processes did not compare favorably
with foreign products (Godfrey, 2002;Folaron, 2003). Under Galvin, the company had
already attempted to improve product quality by benchmarking or learning from the best
products and practices of other companies. Bill Smith, another executive in Motorola’s
two-way radio business, and others saw the limitations of inspection to detect or correct
latent defects in products (defects or errors that show up after someone has purchased the
product). These latent defects impacted customer satisfaction with Motorola products and,
therefore, were detrimental to the company. To address this and other quality-related
problems, Motorola brought together the concepts of process capability (performance) and
product specications (which came from customers) to develop a sophisticated way to
measure and compare the two (Folaron, 2003).
The specic calculation for process capability became defects per million opportunities
(DPMO). In other words, if a process was run one million times, the DPMO indicates how
many times a mistake or error would happen. The method’s name, Six Sigma, refers to the
measurement of DPMO, and that when a given process is much better than average (highly
reliable and stable) its “sigma” level is equal to 3.4 defects or errors for every million
opportunities (3.4 DPMO). Six Sigma refers to the placement of this level of performance on
the normal distribution in terms of variance units (sigma).
This approach to process improvement relies heavily on measuring outcomes and
comparing those to client specications. As will be described in greater detail below, Six

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT